Hell of another kind

Published : Mar 23, 2007 00:00 IST

The main entrance to the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre.-YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

The main entrance to the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre.-YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

That is what wounded American soldiers experience at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, the Army's top facility in Washington.

WALTER REED lived a remarkable life. Born in 1851, he worked as an army doctor and medical researcher in some of the major imperial outposts of the U.S. empire. In the 1890s, Walter Reed operated among the U.S. troops who were sent to suppress the native Americans in the American West, and in the early 1900s he worked in Cuba. As a researcher, Reed discovered the pathways (mosquitoes) for the transmission of yellow fever. This was a major feat, and it allowed the U. S. armed forces to operate with physical impunity in the Caribbean and Central America (and for the completion of the Panama Canal after 1904). "One of the marvels of his life," wrote one of his biographers, "is that his relegation to frontier garrisons, unfavourable for intellectual contacts, did not ruin him."

Seven years after his death in 1902, the U.S. government honoured him by naming the main military hospital after him. The Walter Reed General Hospital opened on May Day in 1909 on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Renamed the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, the hospital has cared for wounded U.S. troops from all the major conflicts since then. In recent years, as the last stop in the War on Terror, the centre takes in 16,000 patients a year.

Many of these patients say that they survived one kind of hell in combat and when they came to Walter Reed they had to survive "a different kind of hell". Marine Sergeant Ryan Groves, 26, told reporters: "We've done our duty. We fought the war. We came home wounded. But whoever the people are back here who are supposed to give us the easy transition should be doing it. We don't know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don't have the answers."

On February 18, 2007, The Washington Post lead story for the day carried the headline, "Soldiers face neglect, frustration at army's top medical facility". Reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull opened their story with an evocative paragraph: "Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mould. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the World Wars, often smells like greasy carryout. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

The descriptions ran in most newspapers and television crews covered the story extensively.

Sergeant Grove told Priest and Hull that he learnt to trust the military as if it were his parent. But that trust had been betrayed. "When you join the Marine Corps," he said, "they tell you, you can forget about your mama. `You have no mama. We are your mama.' That training works in combat. It doesn't when you are wounded." It especially does not work when the system is stretched to the limit by the endless wars across the planet.

In 1996, the Veterans Administration, which administers the military hospitals, tended to 2.9 million people. By 2004 the number had soared to 6.8 million. Because of these high numbers, and in keeping with the Bush administration's miserly attitude towards social welfare, the government has attempted to revoke the rights of some veterans. The government tried to cut those who are deemed "better off" (incomes higher than $35,000 a year) from the rolls, but Congress defeated the plan. Nevertheless, the government cut the budgets for mental health (by 30 per cent) and for drug treatment (40 per cent). One study showed that in 2003, 250,000 veterans waited for six months for their first appointment with a doctor.

The poor condition of U.S. veterans is reflected in their inability to adjust back to civilian life. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that 200,000 veterans are homeless any given night (400,000 have some experience of homelessness during the course of a year). Of these veterans, almost half have substance abuse problems, and short of half suffer from mental illnesses (including post-traumatic stress disorder). The support systems for just these ailments have been cut by the budgets of President George W. Bush.

Two days after The Washington Post story, at a White House press briefing, Bush's Press Secretary and former FOX news commentator Tony Snow faced a relatively hostile press corps. One reporter asked, "The administration's mantra for a long time has been `support the troops'. What is the reaction, then, when you read the series of stories in The Washington Post about troops coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan and being treated so poorly? What's the President's reaction?" Snow, looking pained, answered defensively, "It's not a mantra. I would really choose words carefully. It's a commitment to support the troops."

When pressed, Snow noted, "I can tell you that the President feels passionately about them, and you should have no doubt about it. I've been at enough events when he looks these people in the eye. There is a commitment, a strong, profound emotional commitment to the people who serve this country."

Bush has pinned the Democrats to the wall on his Iraq strategy by his claim that any drawdown of troops or any cutback on funds will leave the troops in harm's way, defenceless. Democrats are paralysed by the fear that if they stop funding the war on Iraq, the Republicans will claim that they do not support the troops. The phrase "Support the Troops" has widespread appeal, both on the pro- and anti-war sides (a common anti-war slogan says, "Support the troops, bring them home").

After the Democratic-led Congress passed a non-binding resolution against the war, Representative Peter King (Republican from New York) fumed, "You cannot support the troops if you are undermining their mission." The Democrats are hampered by this argument. But it has now come back to haunt the Republicans, and President Bush specifically.

When he visited the Walter Reed Hospital last December, Bush said, "We owe them all we can give them. Not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service." The recent scandal at Walter Reed, and his administration's bureaucratic response to it, raises doubts about his genuine support for the troops and their families.

When The Washington Post's extraordinary story implicated the entire chain of command, the U.S. Defence Department swung into PR action. Army bureaucrats pretended that most of the senior officers had no idea that conditions had deteriorated to this extent. All this despite the fact that the media had widely reported shoddy conditions at Walter Reed and at other Veterans Administration hospitals over the past few years (on April 8, 2004, veteran reporter Diana Sawyer's Primetime offered a graphic portrait of the decline of services for veterans). Then, the Pentagon dismissed Walter Reed's director Major-General George Weightman. He lay on his sword to protect his superiors.

In October 2006, Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, went incognito to a weekly meeting of wives, girlfriends and mothers of veterans held in the hospital. Appalled by what she had heard, Joyce Rumsfeld asked a staff person if her husband's visits to the hospital had been stage-managed. The staff person agreed. The Walter Reed authorities barred the volunteer who had brought Joyce Rumsfeld into the hospital. They were furious.

When Tony Snow was asked if Bush knew of these conditions, he first said yes, then backtracked hastily. After The Washington Post stories the Pentagon sent around an email that said, "It will be in most cases not appropriate to engage the media while this review takes place." In other words, the Pentagon ordered cameras and journalists off the premises.

On March 3, Bush dedicated his weekly radio address to the scandal. "Most of the people working at Walter Reed are dedicated professionals," he said. "Yet some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve. This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country, and it's not going to continue."

All this rhetoric is no consolation to the troops. In September 2006, Colonel Peter Garibaldi (a garrison commander at Walter Reed) wrote a memo to his superiors warning that because of the privatisation of the workforce at the hospital "patient care services are at risk of mission failure". The road to privatisation and the resource cutback continue. All that the government can offer is tough words and a promise to "support the troops".

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